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How Trump taps into Christian ideology

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

On the day he was arraigned in Washington, D.C., on felony charges for conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, former President Donald Trump didn't mince words.

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DONALD TRUMP: When you look at what's happening, this is a persecution of a political opponent. This was never supposed to happen in America. This is the persecution of the person that's leading by very, very substantial numbers in the Republican primary and leading Biden by a lot. So if you can't beat him, you persecute him, or you prosecute him.

DETROW: That word persecution holds particular meaning for many of Trump's Christian supporters. It shows up in the gospels, and it's critical to understanding Christian identity. To understand how the theology of persecution intersects with American politics, NPR's Sarah McCammon spoke with Candida Moss, a professor of theology at the University of Birmingham.

CANDIDA MOSS: Being persecuted in Christianity - because Jesus died in this unjust way, because the martyrs were executed - just being persecuted is a sign that what you are doing is right and good and that you have the support of God. And that means that this is a very powerful rhetorical claim. If Christians are succeeding politically, commercially, practically in their lives, then that's because God loves them and supports them.

But if Christians are being criticized, if they're being unsuccessful, if people disagree with them, then that's also a sign that they're in the right. Because if they can claim that as persecution, that's a sign that God is on their side. And the problem with that and the way that that functions in Christianity as opposed to other groups is that a powerful Christian group that claims that it's being persecuted can never fully be disagreed with about anything because disagreement is then understood to be a full-blown attack, a kind of religious war.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: You really can't lose either way with that...

MOSS: Yeah, it's absolutely a win-win state of affairs. It really is sort of part of the genius of Christianity.

MCCAMMON: So we've talked about this idea primarily as a theological idea, but how does it turn into a political idea?

MOSS: So I think the first person to make it a political idea is a historian called Eusebius of Caesarea. He was a Christian bishop, and he was part of the court of the Roman emperor, Constantine, who was the famous emperor who made Christianity legal and started to sort of Christianize the Roman Empire. And Eusebius...

MCCAMMON: The first Christian nationalist, you could say.

MOSS: That is right. And Eusebius wrote this church history during Constantine's reign, and one of the threads that he decided to weave through his sort of 300-year history of the church was that Christians are always being attacked. They're constantly being persecuted. And the reason he did that was that in his own day, there were disagreements in the church. And so Eusebius presented the people with whom he disagreed, the heretics of his own day, as the successors to the persecutors.

And so he has this kind of polarized vision of the world that's very rhetorically effective. He can describe people with whom he disagrees as actually being like ravenous wolves attacking the church. And he does this to sort of advance very politicized church leaders. He does this to advance his own theological and political positions. But he really lays the groundwork for how Christians ever since have thought about themselves.

MCCAMMON: And now let's move forward to the present. Where do we see this kind of politicized rhetoric around persecution? When does it start to emerge as part of the American political landscape?

MOSS: So to an extent, it's sort of baked into American identity. When you learn about America and its history, you learn about the pilgrims who came here fleeing religious persecution. But if you think about, say, just political discourse, it really sort of picks up in the 1960s, when evangelical Protestants began to see themselves as persecuted because of the rising tide of cultural movements that they saw as antithetical to Christianity. I'm thinking feminist movement, the kind of secularization rise that you see in the 1960s...

MCCAMMON: The sexual revolution.

MOSS: ...The sexual revolution, all of those kinds of things - women working, rising divorce rates, etc., etc. And in the 1970s, you see the religious right concerned about prayer no longer taking place in schools, about the Bible not being read in schools. And to the religious right, that felt like an attack. And that has only gathered increasing amounts of strength through the 1980s into the present. When you think about things like LGBT rights and similar movements, these are construed as attacks on Christianity, as a sign that America is sort of moving away from her supposedly Christian roots.

MCCAMMON: When Trump supporters, particularly those from a Christian background, hear him say he's being persecuted, he's being attacked, what do they hear in that?

MOSS: When they hear Trump talk about how he's persecuted, if they're already supporters of his, it's a familiar cry - one they've heard from the pulpit on Sundays. They identify with him because of it, and they start interpreting criticisms of Trump through that framework. And that means, for example, that when he gets indicted, as he has been, that just serves as evidence that he is being persecuted. So it's win-win for him. It's like a dog whistle. They hear him say that he's persecuted. They know what that means. They know how unjust it is. However legally justified any of these cases are, there is a substantial proportion of his supporters who will believe that this is nothing other than a crime against justice. For Trump supporters, these indictments are crimes. They are crimes of persecution.

MCCAMMON: That's fascinating. I'm thinking about that - and it's something that I've thought about and written about as well. But the - reaching the apex, in a way, of political power is not an - any kind of cure for the sense of persecution, it seems.

MOSS: I think that's exactly right. It remains a really valuable weapon in the rhetorical toolbox that you can bring out if you're being disagreed with. If you think about the number of times that President Trump claimed that he was attacked during his presidency, to say nothing of right now, and the exaggerated claims that he was the most attacked political leader in history, which you can imagine Julius Caesar might disagree as he was murdered by a group of senators - but this kind of inflammatory rhetoric, it's completely dislocated from historical events. And you can continue to use it as a way to kind of buffer yourself from any criticism, regardless of how powerful you are.

MCCAMMON: Candida Moss is a theology professor at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. and the author of the book "The Myth Of Persecution." Thanks so much for talking with us.

MOSS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Jeanette Woods